How to encourage and teach children to have empathy for others

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By Susan Baldani

In today’s world, fostering empathy in children is more important than ever. It has a positive impact not only on others, but also on the child demonstrating it as well.

Empathy is the ability to recognize, identify and understand feelings in others. People who are empathic show compassion for others, try to prevent actions that hurt feelings, care for those who are suffering, and also understand how their behaviors affect others, whether positively or negatively.

How do we instill empathy in young hearts and minds? There are actually a variety of strategies that can help parents, caregivers, teachers, coaches and other individuals who are involved with children. Of course, depending on a child’s age, some techniques will be more appropriate than others. However, it’s best to start early. Even very young children can learn to be caring and give comfort.

Model empathy
When your child see and hears you comforting another person, you’re sending an important message to him. He sees how you do it and learns to replicate that behavior. He also witnesses the difference a few kind words and actions can have.

Display and vocalize your own feelings
Some parents try to hide sadness or frustration from children. Tell your children when you’re going through a hard time and explain how they can help you feel better. Even if it’s just by giving you a hug or drawing you a picture, they’ll learn how they can give comfort, which in turn will give them a sense of pride in themselves.

Encourage children to express their feelings and to also ask others how they are feeling
Ask you children about their day and let them know you they can come to you when they’re having a bad day or if they are sad. Encourage them to find out how their friends and family members are doing and to really listen when they respond. Sometimes listening to someone’s problem is all that a person really needs.

Validate your children’s feelings
Children are often scared or worried about things adults may consider trivial. However, they are very important to the child at that time. Tell them you understand how stressful it can be to prepare for a test or how nerve-wracking it can be going away to camp. Instead of saying “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” ask “Why are you worried? Let’s talk about and maybe I can help.”

“Sometimes when our child is sad, angry, or disappointed, we rush to try and fix it right away, to make the feelings go away because we want to protect him from any pain. However, these feelings are part of life and ones that children need to learn to cope with. In fact, labeling and validating difficult feelings actually helps children learn to handle them,” said Claire Lerner and Rebecca Parlakian, authors of the article “How to Help Your Child Develop Empathy.”

Other times, children get angry because they can’t do something. Parents can say, “I can see you’re upset that you can’t watch television right now, and I know you’re disappointed, but it’s time to go to bed.” While they still aren’t getting their way, their feelings are acknowledged.

Teach empathy through stories
Dr. Michele Borba, an internationally recognized expert and author on children, teens, parenting, bullying, and moral development, said, “The right book can stir a child’s empathy better than any lesson or lecture ever could. And the right book matched with the right child can be the gateway to opening his heart to humanity.” Also, tell your child stories from your own childhood and let her hear how you demonstrated empathy to others in their times of need.

Role play and show children how they can empathize with others
Because of their limited vocabulary and experiences, children may have a hard time showing their concern for others. Come up with situations where your child can practice using comforting words phrases such as “I’m sorry you’re sad. Can I help?,” or “Can I sit with you until you feel better?” Sometimes kids don’t realize what they say or do can hurt others.

For example, if your daughter’s friend wants to play with her at recess but she would rather play alone, how would she tell her friend in a kind way? Or, if your son doesn’t want his best friend to stay over one night, how would he handle it so as not to hurt his friend’s feelings?

It’s also very important to teach children how to say “I’m sorry.” Let them know that they won’t always be perfect and may still hurt someone’s feelings, but a sincere apology helps others know that they regret their behavior. The key word here is “sincere.”

Point out uncaring behavior
Dr. Borba suggests four steps to help kids respond more empathically with “CARE”: 1) Call attention to uncaring behavior; 2) Assess how uncaring affects others, helping kids to understand another’s perspective; 3) Repair the hurt and make amends; and 4) Express disappointment for uncaring behavior, while stressing expectations for caring behavior in the future.

Limit internet and phone time
Many kids, especially those in the preteen and teen years, may lose personal communication skills if they spend too much time with peers online or texting instead of having face-to-face contact. The other danger of social media is that people say things online that they would never say to someone in person. Explain how the same rules of respect and courtesy apply whether the person is in front of them, on the phone, or on the internet.

Every child is different, and some will develop empathy easier and faster than others. Be patient and continue to help them become empathetic individuals who care about their fellow classmates, friends, parents, siblings and others they come across in their day-to-day worlds.

Written for Roanoke Valley Family Magazine in Virginia.

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